Rainy Yu Guan, founder of Rainy’s International Education Consultancy

rainy yu guan photo

Rainy founded Rainy’s International Education Consultancy. She aims to support Chinese students studying and living in the UK by helping them better navigate the complexities in their cross-cultural study and life. Her company involves two sides - the China side and the UK side. The China side is developing in a good pace - she has lots of students in China for their entry to UK universities. Now she’s looking into expanding the existing part to the UK, and is trying to leverage Oxford resources to provide ongoing support for students who have come to the UK and have met cross-cultural challenges in their study and life. 

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?

I did MSc in Law and Finance in Oxford. Back in China, I had a Bachelor in International Politics, and had my first master in Commercial Law. So, my background is quite interdisciplinary among politics, law, finance, and business. The reason I got the idea of becoming an entrepreneur comes from my lived experience. I am a person who seeked to develop an international mindset and of course an international education. I’ve always wanted to go abroad, study abroad and make friends abroad. That’s why I decided to come to Oxford before I actually started my professional journey. However, before I came to Oxford, I had only known its big brand, it is a great place for you to earn a good degree, it sounded all very brilliant and I could get everything I need. But only when I actually got here did I realize that it’s not that easy. It’s not just earning a degree, but I was literally living in a completely different country, a different culture, facing lots of cross-cultural gaps.  

Therefore, that leads to the problem behind my business that has driven my entrepreneurial journey: we know many Chinese students are coming to the UK every year to improve their educational background and to experience a different, international life and culture. There are currently many institutions supporting students’ entry to the UK, but what they need support for is actually much beyond just getting into a university. Students coming from a non-English-speaking East Asian country face not only language barriers, but also a very different learning and teaching system, different expectations from teachers, different cultural expectations and norms, and different socializing environment, and so much more. These cross-cultural challenges faced by current Chinese students in the UK are many, but are under-met. From my experience, what’s even worse is that many students are not properly informed of these challenges when they’re thinking about education overseas; only when they are shocked and frustrated by these challenges do they realize that, and at that time they cannot find an effective solution. This is how I came to think about doing this business. 

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?

For me, the essence of entrepreneurship is finding a real problem to solve. If it’s not a real problem, you’ll just be playing with your own ideas/imaginations, and you’re not making a real impact to people who are facing real problems.  

Also, you need to know that you’re capable of solving this problem, which means feasibility is also key. 

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?

I think the first key skill is that you need to be able to identify a real problem, and to know that you are truly passionate and also have the capability of solving it.  

Secondly, I think it’s a general attitude of positivity and curiosity. You need to try and keep positive to face all the challenges on this journey. Also, you need to stay curious to ask questions and to find problems. 

The third one, I would say, leadership is key. You need to organize people, coordinate with a team, make your decisions heard, and see the potentials of individuals. In that way, you can be a good leader creating a synergy of different potentials in your team. I think that requires a high amount of leadership mindset. 

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?

That’s an interesting question. My business has two parts, the China part, and a new part I want to develop in the UK. I think my success on the Chinese side of the business has given me the confidence. Basically, there’re already many students working with me for their study plans in the UK, for them to get into UK universities. I’ve been supporting them along the way, and that has been successful. I’ve also built a good connection with the current student database.

So, firstly, I have my lived experience and deep understanding of international students’ frustration of studying and living in the UK. Secondly, it’s what I’ve just mentioned - my current engagement with a big number of aspiring students coming from China. Over 6 years of mentoring and consulting students, I have also built up my insights, so now I think it’s a good time to expand it into providing students who have already got into Oxford and other universities with ongoing support for their study and living here. 

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?

There are many things I like about entrepreneurship. Finding more and more about the problem I want to solve is one of them. I think the journey of discovering the problem is always ongoing, as customers’ needs are changing. You should never stop looking into the problem at any stage of the business. I think listening to customers’ insights is really exciting for me - that is the real and core focus that entrepreneurs should stick to. We shouldn’t love our own imagination, but instead love customers’ insights and what they are struggling with. 

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?

I think the most satisfying moments are when my students come back to me and say, “Rainy I think you’ve really helped me a lot. You’ve given me lots of encouragements and support, and I really trust you.” I think gaining that trust from customers is so, so valuable because building trust between a company and its client is almost the most difficult task for an early start-up. So, I think gaining customers’ satisfaction and their positive feedback is really encouraging.  

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?

I would think about quite a few. The first mistake is when I started something just out of my mind without really knowing what customers really needed. That means you can’t go too far if you don’t understand customers deeply and correctly.  

The second mistake I would say was not really knowing my limitations and strengths very accurately. We often say that entrepreneurs are generalists, we can do everything, but I don’t think that is true. We do have our particular strengths and limitations. I think not knowing that has made me a bit confused about what I should and should not do, and what I should delegate to my team. So, I think knowing your potential and limitations is important, then you know how to build a good team.  

Thirdly, related to team building - I employed quite a few part-time people in my China team. At first, I thought they would be very helpful, and also at that time I don’t have much money to afford many full-time employees, so hiring part-time was something that came to my mind first. But after a while I realized that there were some challenges because part-time workers never put my business as their top priority - they always have their full-time job or study, and they always have other commitments that they put before my business, so that means their work might compromise when I need them urgently. I think you should be really careful when you’re engaging with a lot of part-time people, try to think of how to balance hiring full-time and part-time or freelancers, these are all very specific technicalities that you will have to navigate only when you’re on the journey. 

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?

Interestingly, the companies that have inspired me are not those that are directly similar to my business. I wouldn’t think of big companies that have already proved very successful such as Facebook and Google. What have truly encouraged me are small businesses like mine, and many women startups in Oxfordshire who have achieved certain degree of success. I’m inspired by them not just because they have been successful in a way, but also because their experience is similar to mine. I can see their struggles, difficulties, and frustrations, and how they navigate these difficulties is very inspiring for me. 

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?

The first thing might be how to find a good partner or team member. That’s something I struggle because I don’t have time looking for good people, but I know I do need to do that, so I don’t know how to balance your time, and how to find that right person who will be committed, passionate, also capable of doing the right thing.  

Then I would like to discuss how to best leverage the resources available to you around your area. I’m in Oxford, which is a great place, but I don’t think I have done very well so far connecting with the very relevant resources, including people, potential partners and advisors.  

Thirdly, it’s about when do you think you can scale. At an early stage, I’m doing a lot of things manually by myself, and I really appreciate the personalization of that. Students and customers feel that it’s Rainy, not a big agency, that they are talking to. But ultimately if I want to expand my company to serve more students and customers, it has to be scaled and I will not always be on the front line. So, I would always ask the question of when is the right time to scale and how. 

How have you funded your ideas?

It’s completely bootstrapping. I think bootstrapping is a good and sustainable way of funding my business because, as I said, I received good initial responses, so they support me with my initial revenues, and I don’t need to get external funding. What I got is just organic revenues to keep supporting me with my ongoing business. I hope this can sustain in the future, so that I don’t run out of cash. But I think when I really need to scale my business, I might need external funding. 

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?

No so far. 

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?

For the good side, I’m in oxford not only because Oxford is a good place, but very importantly because I was a student here, so I’m familiar with the environment here, and have lots of connections here, with students, teachers, and institutions such as EnSpire. Specific to my international education experience - based in Oxford, I’m close to international students coming from China, and I’m also close to potential education and consulting resources locally available at Oxford who are already helping students, so I could learn from them, and partner with them.  

In terms of the not so satisfying side, I think the first thing is I didn’t find very customized support for my business - I don’t know where to find an advisor, resources, or platforms that are international education focused or student-focused.  

The other issue is about the general problem of supporting women’s business. Of course, women are already struggling with funding business and investment, but I also feel like the current support available for women is also biased. I heard a lot about supporting STEM women, I understand that because women studying technology and science are underrepresented and their businesses are more invisible than men’s. But what about other women, women doing cross-cultural consultancy like me, women doing community work, social support, beauty business, and so on. I think there are many women doing these non-tech but very valuable and meaningful businesses - that benefit the society in a profound way, but they are not being heard enough, and are not receiving enough support. 

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur?  If so, how have you overcome them?

Yes. Coming from a relatively traditional area of China, although I have very open-minded parents, the general environment is very conservative about what a woman should do when they approach 30s - many think that women should get married and have children, just anything other than your career. I feel that is a very toxic, unhealthy, and unfair environment for women’s development. Although there are lots of other places in China that are more progressive, I come from a rather conservative place. For me, what I’m doing is quite different from what other women of same age from my hometown are doing. So, overcoming that different expectations from where you come from is the first challenge.  

Another challenge is not receiving enough support as a non-tech woman business owner. For my business, luckily, I’m able to bootstrap, but I don’t think I’ve received many supports so far in terms of finding peers or partners doing similar things. It certainly feels a little bit lonely doing non-tech business as a woman in Oxford and in the UK. 

I’m not sure if I can overcome them all. I think challenges come with opportunities, and I will try my best to advocate for more attention to non-tech women entrepreneurs. 

What resources would you recommend for other women?

EnSpire IDEA is very good. They have the feminist side of supporting women and promoting diversity in enterprising activities.   

I also appreciate the support I received from OxLEP and OSEP. They are fully funded so all their support is free. They are also very dedicated to supporting local Oxfordshire businesses in many workshops, one-on-one talks, referring you to potential funding opportunities, coordinating with university resources, and so on.  

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?

My suggestion would be finding a real problem. We are excited by our own inspirations and ideas, but if you’re just about to start a business, please go and validate whether your problem is a real one, especially by talking to potential customers. That is more important than reading books, watching videos, and so on. 

Any last words of advice?

Be resilient to failures and mistakes. You can make mistakes, you can have failures, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. Learn from them, and you will grow stronger and smarter.  

Be open-minded to give up your old idea when you know it’s not a good enough one (e.g. when you realise that there is not a big/real enough problem to solve). Pivoting to a right choice is your next step.